The Challenge to School-Based Creativity

Above is the 55-minute talk that Sir Ken Robinson gave to the RSA, from which the 11-minute animation here was produced.  It’s mostly him being a talking body/head.  The map showing densities of ADHD prescriptions isn’t so dramatic as in the startling animation at 4′ 40″.  I was disappointed in that part.

The larger problem I see, though, is one of implementation.  Sure, we can go to the kind of arts-based curriculum he recommends, so that kids are taking drama and learning to dance at the same level of efficacy and skill as we require kids to learn mathematics. And sure, we can have the kind of lab-based science curriculum that teaches kids to do science, rather than reading about it.

(unexpectedly long — continues below)

But there’s four obstacles in the way.  The first of them is the regulatory and liability hurdle, which would make school principals and teachers liable for failing to follow the dictates of NCLB or whatever other legal or regulatory bounds may be in place.  After all, students don’t get tested in dance across the board; they get tested in math and written language.  And kids who spend their time dancing (or juggling or doing magic tricks or fire-spinning) tend not to pass those required examinations at performance levels which regulators and overseers of educational systems expect.  And schools that fail those standardized tests have awful things done to them. So the  regulatory hurdle is challenging.

The second hurdle is fiscal.  Every school and every school age student is subjected to a regimen of standardized testing, so it is ‘normal’ to strip money from music and arts programs in order to pay for the ‘core subjects’.  When a municipality cuts the budget, it will tend to keep only the subjects tested — because those are the ones that affect future funding from the state and town tax base.  Communities wealthy enough can adopt a ‘pay-go’ model (and some have), but it means that a school must be in a wealthy enough community already, to benefit from the arts. Communities without such resources already, will be out of luck.

The third hurdle is parental.  Parents support our current system of education  — they may hate the quality of education their children receive, they may be infuriated by the educational bureaucracy; the process of standardized testing may thoroughly enrage them.  But they still buy into the idea and the ideal of education — and even granted that the curriculum may annoy them or the methodology of teaching or the politics of a specific teacher upsets them — they want their kids to be in school doing something… The model, however broken it may be, is still “do well in school, go to college, get a good job.”  So most parents, even the ones who think it’s a crap-shoot, are prepared to at least try to pass through this system.

The fourth hurdle is the lack of a successful alternative which is widespread, well-publicized, sustainable, and successful.  The evidence from analysis of charter schools is that they are just as likely to fall into the three ranges of great, bad, and average that the regular public school system has, and perhaps even in the same proportions.

The independent school or private school tradition is successful — but it’s also not a sustainable model for a public education system. The only reason why an independent school tradition works at all (in the U.S.) is through the regular intake of wealth over-and-above the ordinary cost of education (where ‘ordinary’ is defined as the local community’s expenditures on public education).  Private schools work, in essence, because previous attendees won the edulottery, attribute their success to the independent education they received, and contribute financially toward the future chances of future graduates.

That’s stacking the deck for the students of a specific school, not reforming education as a whole.  For example, Phillips Exeter estimates it spends almost $30,000 per student, and most of that cost is for salaries and benefits.  By contrast, the state of Connecticut spends about $10,000 per student on public education, with a bit of a ramp-up for students in magnet schools.  And Arkansas spends, according to this website, around $5800 per student.

And guess what — there’s a direct correlation between the number of development (i.e., fundraising) officers a private school employs, and the funds they pump out the alumni.  So it’s not a model that public schools can adopt — can taxpayers’ money be used to fund efforts to pull on the heartstrings of wealthy alumni of individual schools? And say a school DOES get such a windfall? Can that money be yanked from one school in a district, to fund another that may be in trouble? How will the donor feel about that?  And doesn’t this privilege schools in already-wealthy areas, again?

So there you are, the four challenges to any sort of reform — regulatory, financial, parental, and modular.  I think if anyone can create a successful model of reform that is scalable to Arkansas’s $5800 per student per year, while also working for Phillips Exeter at $30,000 a year, some of the regulatory and financial obstacles could be overcome.

But then it comes down to the parental hurdle.  Really, even if we imagined there  was a community in the country that would give me (or anyone else, really) a twenty-year exemption from standardized testing, and a blank check to design a new educational model… are those townsfolk also going to hand over their kids to an untested program to create a new cultural model?

Yeah, that went over well.

If we’re going to adopt Ken Robinson’s visions for schools, it’s going to need a vast array of local, state, and national leaders, as well as parents, to demand something different.  And it’s going to require the breakdown of command-and-control centralized education.  And it’s going to require the end of monopolies of teachers’ unions, and tenure for faculty, and a fundamental breakdown in the way schools currently work.

Which means, to quote a reformer I quite admire, “pray that it not happen in winter, because those will be days of distress unequalled from the beginning,” because it will be ugly for everyone involved for quite a long time before the final collapse.

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